DUKE ELLINGTON WAS FOND OF NOTING that his band was born in Newport in 1956. Despite a career that stretched back some 30 years before that and an immense surge of fame during the big band era, Ellington’s band became a mid-’50s millstone, one of the very few that didn’t vanish entirely as post-war economics and changing popular tastes took their toll.
Then a small, wholly unpredictable miracle occurred. This lumbering dinosaur of a band, verging on bankruptcy, hit a groove one summer night in Newport and transported its audience, made the cover of Time magazine and issued a hit record of the event, a record that’s stayed in print ever since.
It was Goodman at the Palomar, Hendrix at Woodstock: a defining moment. “Ellington at Newport,” the record, was studied the way “Potato Head Blues” was studied. The 22-chorus sax solo by Paul Gonsalves joined Jess Stacy’s “Sing Sing Sing” solo as one of those transcendent moments for which you’re thankful that a microphone was nearby.
One of the significant salutes of Ellington’s hundredth birthday, in 1999, was the second CD reissue of this album, this time revealing that much of the original recording had been re-created in the Columbia studio shortly after the concert to compensate for the band’s lack of preparation. “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue,” the Gonsalves showpiece, was authentic, but not much else.
Not only was the real concert recording finally issued: it came out in stereo, a process achieved by painstakingly synchronizing Columbia’s recording with a tape made by Voice of America with a different microphone. The reissue went fantastically over budget and caused an in-house scandal at Sony Legacy (the then-current face of Columbia), a saga that’s not covered in John Fass Morton’s otherwise extraordinarily comprehensive Backstory in Blue. It won’t hurt to have the recording on hand as you read this, because you’ll be inspired to listen to the concert again and again as each successive chapter gives a new gloss on the subject.
It begins with the Newport Jazz Festival, an unlikely event for such a staid locale – but we meet local socialite Elaine Lorillard, a pianist whose classical training was thrown aside when a boyfriend introduced her to jazz. Even after marrying wealthy Louis Lorillard and settling in Newport, her passion for the music was undimmed.
The couple tapped broadcaster-turned-impresario George Wein to put together a festival, and Wein drew on many connections he’d made through his record label, Storyville. (It’s Wein you hear on the “Ellington at Newport” reissue, yelling at Duke to get off the stage as the concert ran overtime. And you’ll enjoy hearing Ellington fake him out.)
Wein brought in Columbia Records producer George Avakian, and it was the latter who would woo Ellington back to his label with an invitation to write and record an extended work at the 1956 festival, at a time when live jazz recordings were almost unheard of.
The book takes a close look at the Ellington band as it existed in that era, with its store of talent, unique personnel – and fading fortunes. Getting a new, lengthy work finished and rehearsed in time for the concert proved almost too much to ask, and the narrative gives it all the suspense of a good detective story.
One more element sets up the tale: the story of Elaine Anderson, whose unexpected, unbridled dancing fanned the crowds excitement during the Ellington set, and whose image was immortalized on the record jacket.
It all comes together in a skillfully woven saga of talent and opportunity, sociology and surprise. Listening to the concert, hearing Johnny Hodges flub his trademark glissandos and what may have been the band’s worst-ever performance of its own theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” it’s a wonder they got through the set, never mind turned the world of music on its ear. Now I understand the phenomenon much better.
Great art deserves exhaustive studies. The polyglot nature of American culture is often difficult to study strand by strand, but Morton’s book not only does an admirable job of untwining the many threads that led to Ellington’s Newport triumph but also reminds us that music like this is important enough to warrant such a scholarly examination as this one.
Backstory in Blue: Ellington at Newport ’56 by John Fass Morton
Rutgers University Press, 336 pp., $34.95
– Metroland Magazine, 4 September 2008